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Ex-Vt. Officer Denies Assaulting Cuffed Woman

A punch is seen on police body camera footage, but the officer said it was a strike designed to get an unruly suspect to comply.

A former Vermont police officer was in a St. Albans courtroom Monday, pleading not guilty to an assault charge stemming from the way he handled a handcuffed suspect in March.

Defense attorney Rebecca Otey entered a not guilty plea on behalf of her client, Jason Lawton, 31, of Cambridge.

Lawton is accused of punching a woman while she was in police custody — an accusation that cost him his job as a police officer for the city of St. Albans earlier this year.

Back in March, cameras at the police department and on officers' uniforms captured an explosive encounter with Amy Connelly, 35, of Highgate, who was arrested after a bar owner said she was drunk and ripped his shirt, refusing to leave the business.

Inside a holding cell, St. Albans officers said Connelly continued acting up, repeatedly kicking a door.

In the video, which the ACLU of Vermont pushed to be released, Connelly is seen standing up with her hands cuffed behind her back, before then-Sergeant Lawton pushes her down. The suspect gets up again and appears to kick at Lawton's legs, which is when he punches her.

"Don't kick me," Lawton shouted at her, additionally using an expletive.

Photos released after the encounter show how Connelly had a puffy eye and large bruise in the days that followed. According to court paperwork, her doctor told investigators there was facial nerve damage that could take months or a up to a year to heal.

"You have abused me," Connelly is heard yelling on the footage from the police department and body cameras, also referring to officers in the room as "animals."

After a lengthy investigation, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, a Democrat, decided to bring an assault charge against Lawton.

"Nobody is above the law, including the police," Donovan said Monday, labeling a punch seen on footage from the police holding cell as a violent and unnecessary uppercut. "This is a case that undermines the public trust. We will not tolerate this. And we look forward to the prosecution."

Otey and Lawton declined to comment to necn and NBC10 Boston after Monday's arraignment.

Police paperwork filed by Lawton in March, before he was fired, described the blow to Connelly as a "distraction strike," which Lawton said was effective in bringing Connelly under control after she kicked him in his shin.

In the police footage released to Vermont news organizations, Lawton can be heard describing the kick at his shins as "stupid," telling the suspect "now you're going to get an assault charge."

Court records show a different prosecutor, the Franklin County state's attorney, is pursuing charges against Connelly. Those charges include allegations of disorderly conduct, unlawful mischief, and simple assault. Connelly's attorney tried having them dismissed, but the motion was denied, court documents show.

Connelly has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

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